The primeval tradition of all mankind

Temple ScrollMost of the 36 books which comprise the Old Testament were written in the first millennium BC, works of literature produced by a literate civilisation. Israel reached that stage as government became centralised under the new institution of kingship, as the book of Samuel relates. The king was supported by departments of State headed by a chief secretary, a chief recorder, two high priests and an army general (2 Sam 8:16f). The first two – in charge of the fledgling Civil Service – would have been responsible for tax records, official letters, royal annals and legal decisions, some of which would have required archiving. But there was no system of state education, and the vast majority of the population would not have been able to read or write. Children were taught what they needed to know about the necessities and responsibilities of adult life by their parents.

This is not to say that ancient Israel had ever been totally illiterate. The law of Moses, in the mid 15th century BC, was recorded on a scroll, and Moses, and Moses, who inscribed it, had learned to write as a member of Egypt’s royal court. The scroll was deposited in the Tabernacle next to the ark, the same work that, repeatedly transcribed onto new parchment but eventually forgotten about, was rediscovered in Josiah’s reign. Known today as the four books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the law set out not only the moral, ritual and social rules that should govern Israel but also the historical circumstances in which they arose: they had authority because they were the edicts of God himself, given immediately after Israel’s escape from Egypt. In contrast to the history of every other nation, they were in place before the Israelites had their own land and own religion, let alone any form of government. Describing the circumstances of their origin was thus of crucial importance. Moses’ role was simply that of mediator.

The internal evidence is consistent with what these books purport to be recording. They were written by someone with first-hand knowledge of the wilderness where the Israelites spent their first forty years, not least its geographical details. There is no reason why Moses might not have written substantially the whole of these works, in keeping with the fact that he did not finish writing until just before his death, long after the law was given (Deut 31:24ff). His successor, Joshua, was also literate (Jos 8:32, 24:26), as were a number of his younger contemporaries (Jos 18:8f), who, although raised in the desert, had presumably learned to write from the literate among the previous generation. The Hebrew language itself shows that writing was an art acquired shortly before this time. Its word for ink, dyw, is an adoption of the Egyptian word ry.t, the r being modified to a d, as regularly happened with Semitic borrowings during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (Quack 1992). The Israelites were slaves in Egypt during the 13th and 14th Dynasties, corresponding to the latter part of the Middle Kingdom, and left Egypt, under Moses’ leadership, at the beginning of the 15th.

The book of Deuteronomy, and possibly also the three other books of the law, were probably brought close to their final form by Samuel, c. 1050 BC. Immediately after confirming Saul as Israel’s first king, Samuel ‘told the people the rights and duties of kingship; he wrote them in a book and laid it up before Yahweh’ (I Sam 10:25). Those rights and duties were explicitly recorded in Deuteronomy. These included the instruction that after taking the throne, the king was to have a copy of the law written for him in the presence of the priests and to read from it all the days of his life, ‘diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes’ (Deut 17:18-19). Samuel also kept royal annals, as did both the prophet Nathan and the seer Gad after him. Their works were the main sources for the first book of Chronicles (I Chron 29:29).

Who wrote Genesis?

Since the book of Genesis does not contain any elements of the law, there is no certainty that any of it was written by Moses. Nonetheless, the amount of cultural detail, some of it verified archaeologically, suggests that the sources drawn upon must have been very ancient, whether written or oral. It is the quality of the information rather than the antiquity of the final text that vouches for the book’s accuracy. The process leading up to its final form was no doubt complex, with the work assuming an ever more literary nature as it was updated and stylistically refined, and material added to it. The spirit was more important than the letter. Outside the special situation where the express words of God were recorded, there was no concept of an original text, delivered immediately in its final form, perfect and inviolate.

That said, on occasions the text goes out of its way to note that the time of the patriarchs was different from the time of the monarchy, and any process of updating the text needed to respect that difference. Hence the comment that kings were reigning in the land of Edom ‘before any king reigned over the Israelites’ (Gen 36:31). Hence the numerous instances where an obsolete place name is followed by the contemporary name: both names are given, showing a willingness to add material where this will help later readers, but an unwillingness simply to replace the obsolete name with the contemporary one. The only known exception is the simple substitution of the divine name Yahweh for what would have been the current proper name, though even here the anachronism is pointed out later (Ex 6:3).

A further example of linguistic self-consciousness is the passage where Laban and Jacob make a covenant, marking the occasion by a pile of stones (Gen 31:43ff). Jacob calls the stones ‘Galeed’, but Laban calls them ‘Jegar-sahadutha’, meaning in Hebrew and Aramaic respectively ‘The pile of witness’. The fact that the two relatives spoke different languages, Abraham having adopted the language of Canaan when he settled there, is remembered in the tradition about them and, in this neat, unobtrusive way, recorded. Everywhere else in the story Laban speaks Hebrew, not because this is what he actually spoke, but because it was the language of contemporary readers.

Family tree of the Afro-Asiatic languages. The pattern of diversification closely correlates with patterns of migration from East Africa during the Palaeolithic.The language of the book of Genesis is late Hebrew, despite some vocabulary and turns of phrase that are archaic. Hebrew was not exempted from the rule that languages change over time. Like Aramaic, and like Akkadian, which would have been Abraham’s mother tongue, Hebrew was descended from Semitic, which was descended from a still older language in the Afro-Asiatic family; it was not created de novo. In both grammar and vocabulary Hebrew must have changed a great deal in the eight hundred years from Moses to Josiah, and the comparative modernity of Genesis’s language indicates that there must have been occasions when the whole text was updated, just as a modern version of the Bible is very different from Wyclif‘s medieval version.

For one further instance of late editorial input, consider these details concerning Nimrod (Gen 10:11):
From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Kalhu, and the canals between Nineveh and Kalhu, that is, the great city.

The name Assyria is an anachronism; upper Mesopotamia was not so designated until the Assyrians took it over some time after the 12th century BC. By the 8th century Assyria had become a powerful empire, ruled from three capital cities: Nineveh, Assur and Kalhu. Rehoboth-Ir (‘city of wide streets’) is unattested but probably refers to Assur, in which case the three 8th-century capitals are the three cities listed here. Genesis illuminates the significance of the rise of Mesopotamia’s first king by alluding to Israel’s contemporary experience, for in 722 BC Assyria annexed Israel’s northern kingdom and uprooted its population: it was the successors of Nimrod who brought Israel’s kingship to an end.

Statuette of the Late Uruk ruler corresponding to the biblical Nimrod.Nimrod was a potentate of the Late Uruk period, when writing was just developing. Urban life in Mesopotamia was already well established – the large settlements mentioned in Genesis 10:10-11 were not the only ones – and writing developed, as in Israel, in order to serve the administrative needs of a nascent state. Initially just a means of symbolising the nature and quantity of taxed or traded commodities, writing gradually became capable of representing grammatical sentences, until by the 26th century it was used to record entire myths, epics, cultic hymns. As with Israel, the caveat that we should not be imagining a situation of general literacy still applies. This was not the birth of creative writing. These works were transcriptions of what already existed as elements of an oral culture, and literature was to remain subservient to the spoken word for a long time. Even when written down, such compositions retained the character of works designed for listening to, in a communal setting. Silent reading to oneself was unknown in the ancient world right into the AD era.

When we go still further back, to the chapters that describe the Cataclysm and the corruption of society that brought it about, we enter a period that long predated writing. These chapters cannot therefore represent a historical text in the sense of a record based upon written documents. Man had lived without writing through most of his existence, and if these first chapters of GEnesis have any claim to be reliable historical information, it can only be on the basis that they rendered stories about the deep past that had hitherto been handed down over aeons orally. The stories may have been faithfully preserved, but the language of transmission through those aeons, the language that started as the Afro-Asiatic Ursprache and wound its way down the growing family tree to end up as late Hebrew, had changed beyond all recognition. The word-plays and etymologies in the creation story depend specifically on Hebrew (Adam, for example, being similar to adamah, ‘ground’), though this does not preclude the possibility that they were also valid in the original language.

The tradition amongst non-Hebrew peoples
If Genesis derived from an oral tradition, and one that ultimately went back all the way to the Creation, some traces of it ought to have survived in the traditions of peoples who could not have had contact with Genesis as a written text. In fact we find more than traces. Here, for example, is John Mbiti describing the core beliefs of traditional African religion:

Every African people has a word for God and often other names which describe him. Some of the names, like Chiuta, Jok, Leza, Mulungu, Nyame, Nzambi and others, are commonly used in several African languages. This suggests that a long time ago, before these languages became separate, the names of God were already being used, and the belief in God had already became a major feature of African thinking and life.

God created all things, provided for his creation, and ruled over it. He was understood to be good, merciful, holy, all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere present, never changing, self-existent. The Pygmies said of him, “God was the first who has always existed, and will never die.” Because, ultimately, he was unknowable, he played an insignificant part in religious life. He was not represented by images, as other gods and spirits were, and he had no priests or temples. Many traditions held that he had once been close to men and had intended that they should live forever, but soon they committed some misdeed.

The original paradise was lost: men’s direct link with God was severed or eclipsed, the closeness between the heavens and the earth was replaced by a vast gap without a bridge, the gifts of immortality and resurrection melted away, and death, disease and disharmony came.

This might well be a summary of the story in Genesis 3, where the first humans disobeyed their maker and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Through that act they became intimately acquainted with good and evil. They forfeited the opportunity to eat of the tree of life and were driven out of the garden, where they had enjoyed intimacy with him.

In his twelve-volume work Der Ursprung der Gottesidee (‘The Origin of the Idea of God’), published between 1912 and 1955, the anthropologist Wilhelm Schmidt showed, contrary to the prevailing assumptions of his day, that monotheism predated other forms of religion. The peoples who most clearly recognised a morally exalted supreme being, an all-powerful creator from whom mankind became alienated, were those that were historically and geographically most remote from civilisation.

Konrad Preuss, director of Germany’s National Museum in Berlin and a pioneer of the theory that magic lay at the root of all religion, came to a similar conclusion. In a paper entitled ‘The high god amongst culturally impoverished peoples’ he observed (1922):

All students of the subject who have deliberately concerned themselves with these supreme deities now agree that they are not the last stage of a development, the headstone of the corner in the temple reared by human thought to its gods, but may be an early religious testimony. In fact there are cases in which the only information we possess is that such a single god exists.

This was also the finding of Mircea Eliade in his far-ranging study Patterns in Comparative Religion. Monotheism not only predated but was ancestral to polytheism. Gods multiplied in response to the need for a more personal, accessible and useful religion, and myths developed to explain their origin and character. In the process the supreme being lost much of his significance as creator and sustainer of the world.

Wherever scholars came into contact with peoples yet untouched by Western civilization, they discovered that the Hebrew story about the beginning of things was far from alone. Memories of a cataclysmic flood were as widely distributed across the earth as traditions of a Creator were (e.g. Riem 1925). In the 19th century George Catlin spent fourteen years of his life amongst various tribes of North, Central and South America. Of particular interest was the O-kee-pa ceremony of the Mandan tribe, in which they made sacrifices to the waters. Failure to perform the ritual, they believed
would bring upon them a repetition of the calamity which their traditions say once befell them, destroying the whole human race, excepting one man, who landed from his canoe on a high mountain in the West.

This tradition, however, was not peculiar to the Mandan tribe, for amongst one hundred and twenty different tribes that I have visited in North and South and Central America, not a tribe exists that has not related to me distinct or vague traditions of such a calamity, in which one, or three, or eight persons were saved above the waters, on the top of a high mountain. Some of these, at the base of the Rocky Mountains and in the plains of Venezuela, and the Pampa del Sacramento in South America, make annual pilgrimages to the fancied summits where the antediluvian species were saved in canoes or otherwise, and, under the mysterious regulations of their medicine (mystery) men, tender their prayers and sacrifices to the Great Spirit, to ensure their exemption from a similar catastrophe.

As in the Hebrew tradition, a deluge of waters destroyed the human race except for one family, who survived in a boat and landed on a mountain. Eliade mentions another example:

In the Andaman archipelago, among one of the most primitive peoples of Asia, Puluga is the Supreme Being. Puluga created the world, and the first man, Tomo. Mankind multiplied and had to disperse, and after the death of Tomo grew ever more forgetful of its creator. One day Puluga got angry and a flood covered the whole earth and destroyed mankind: only four people escaped. Puluga had mercy on them, but men still remained recalcitrant. Having once and for all reminded them of his commandments the god withdrew, and men have never seen him since.

How was one to account for the similarities? Obviously they could not be ascribed to direct contact between the peoples of the Near East and the newly discovered tribes. Nor could they be ascribed to contact with modern bearers of the Hebrew traditions, such as European missionaries. Often the parallels were closest amongst tribes who, at the time their traditions were documented, were the most isolated from European culture. The stories arose before the arrival of Western visitors, and in cases where contact with missionaries might have been a possibility, the degree of their transformation made recent borrowing unlikely. The natives related the events as if they had happened in their own country and been remembered through their own traditions. James Frazer ventured the opinion that the similarities were due mostly ‘to similar, but quite independent, experiences either of great floods or of phenomena which suggested the occurrence of great floods, in many different parts of the world’. But this too was problematic. In some cases the similarities to the Hebrew story were too specific for them to have been generalised from different events, and nearly always there was a strong sense that the deluge happened at a time remote from the present, when the deity was more visibly involved with the lives of men: the event was unique, not such as might have occurred at any time and occasionally have been repeated.

The spread of man out of Africa (after Bar-Yosef) compared with the locations of some of the most ancient Afro-Asiatic languages. Migrations parallel those reflected in the Afro-Asiatic family tree).

The obvious explanation is that, long ago, a uniquely devastating deluge had in fact occurred, with the shared elements in the traditions deriving from survivors who had told of their experience. Now distributed across the world, the traditions point back to a time before the Stone Age when man was concentrated in one community, spoke the same language and shared a single tradition. This was after the Deluge, a time when God continued to abide with man and instruct him in how to live, as some of the myths testify (the Andaman tradition, for example). That was why man had not then dispersed across the earth. He had lived in the presence of God, under his rule. So long as God had remained with him, his memory of the Deluge and the events leading up to it had passed down the generations intact. The ancient Egyptians referred to this place as God’s Land and located it in Cush, or modern Ethiopia, the place where the oldest human fossils are found. It was only in the Pliocene that people began to explore lands beyond Africa.

There is thus a strong case for supposing that Genesis is grounded in a primeval tradition that was once common to all mankind. Man lost that memory only as writing came to replace oral tradition as the medium in which knowledge was handed down. Fortunately, western anthropologists of the 19th and first half of the 20th century wrote down the elements of it before it was lost, performing thereby a task similar to the task the writer of Genesis performed in his own time. What they found was that the rest of the world had much the same memory of the deep past that the Hebrews once had, albeit subsequently obscured by thousands of years of degradation and radical changes in theological perception.

That has not generally been the interpretation, however. At the same time as anthropologists beyond the horizons of the western world were discovering surprising corroborations of the Hebrew tradition, Darwin and others were exploring the continents in search of a different story. In a further episode of forgetting, while we often hear about the voyages of HMS Beagle, the discoveries which inspired the work of Catlin, Lang or Schmidt have consequently fallen into neglect. Unable to believe that traditions about the Creation and the Deluge could have been rooted in history, scientists have been working out an account of the world that is independent of historical knowledge. Intolerant of alternatives, anti-spirit and anti-God, their representatives promote their new understanding with religious fervour. The contrast is jarring. ‘We are survival machines,’ writes one, ‘robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.’ The words encapsulate Darwinism at its most extreme: a theory of reality produced by a machine without so much as a ghost inside him, programmed by no intelligence. As they foist upon us these dark paradoxes, our intellectual leaders are not only denying their own human nature but ignoring the entire testimony of human memory.

See also:
The tradition in ancient Sumer